What are the ethics of marketing to children?
This article is a little old and pre-dates the obesity debate now gripping the ad industry, but I think the central idea is still fresh. It suggests that when it comes to the ethics of marketing to children we should move the debate from which categories are ethical to advertise and which are not, to which advertising techniques are ethical to use and which are not.
Talking about the ethics of marketing, especially when there are children concerned, is a poisoned chalice. If I support the views of the libertarians (those who routinely advocate the selling of grandmothers) I sacrifice my soul and any ounce of self-respect I have to the demon of unfettered commercialism.
And if I support the views of the abolitionists (those who would prohibit marketing to children in any way, shape or form) I run the very real risk of destroying my livelihood.
I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.
And what’s more the subject is so fragmented and so damned subjective.
It would be incredibly easy to bang on about what I think about pester power and socially excluded families, or whether marketing should be allowed near the classroom or any number of micro issues but I’ll only be rehearsing arguments we have all heard a thousand times before.
No, I’m going to try something out that is rather braver and which I hope will add something new to the debate.
It’s a small part of some an idea about the ethics of selling and about selling ethics, something I call generating responsible desire.
Responsible desire is a way of thinking about marketing. It is completely unapologetic that what we do for a living is make people want things or ideas – we create desire. That said it also suggests that we need to do this responsibly towards both society and the environment if we are to make our business more sustainable. Put simply it says that we must sell today in ways that don’t compromise our ability to sell tomorrow.
What I want to try and do is to create a sort of overarching approach to the ethics of marketing to kids. In doing so I hope to present a ‘third way’, that is more than simply opportunistic fudge, between the libertarians and the abolitionists.
Lets start by reminding ourselves about the two opposing sides in the ethics debate.
The communications libertarians are people who insist that marketing and advertising are purely commercial tools.
They say things like ‘advertising is shaped by society and not society by advertising’.
They hold that the only responsibility of business is to generate profit and that it is the state’s role to define what is right and wrong through legislation. And as a consequence they see morality and legality and one and the same thing. Think about the way they resisted the removal of commercial freedoms (such as advertising) from tobacco companies for years.
And they see children simply as mini-consumers, the only difference from adults being a slightly less direct purchasing process which just adds to the challenge. In short they are fair game – their naivety about the commercial world that surrounds them a positive advantage
On the other hand the abolitionists sit in ivory towers or chained to trees pouring scorn on us.
Abolitionists believe that the human spirit must be freed from greed and commercialism.
They see our obsession with consumption as an illness and despair that as a society we have replaced being with having.
They throw up their arms in horror at the thought that the consumption of brands is now the primary means by which people create their sense of identity. And they are appalled that spending the day at Bluewater or the Trafford centre passes for a family day out these days.
They are certainly pissed off that our industry regarded Naomi Klein’s No Logo as a ‘how to’ manual not a stinging critique.
For them children are an extremely vulnerable special interest group whose innocence is being robbed by the marketing community and who must be protected from our manipulation.
At the risk of being pragmatic in a sea of dogma I take the view that without the libertarians we have no economy left and without the abolitionists we have no society left – or at least not one I’d like to live in.
So naturally I am rather keen to explore the middle ground.
And finding the middle ground depends on where we want kids to end up.
Do we want children who are docile consumers?
Or do we want children who are non-consumers?
Or do we want children who are aware consumers?
Of course it’s rather tempting to opt for the docile consumer option as it makes all of our lives easier as marketers. God bless kids whose naivety can be exploited and who are blind to what we are up to.
But at least they learn something of the big bad world even if it is the hard way.
The vision of the abolitionists is to keep children isolated from commercialism living a kind of Laura Ingells childhood in a Little House on the Prairie. The problem with this is that it ultimately leaves them unable to deal with the very commercial environment that, as adults, they will have to live in.
Frankly I’m backing the aware consumers option even if this risks creating anti-consumers.
And to create aware consumers we have to help educate children about the commercial world step by step, not just in the classroom but in the work that we do.
Maybe truly ethical marketing to children is that which equips kids to resist our advance, that helps create aware consumers.
Or in other words marketing to kids which is ethical refuses to take advantage of the naivety of the children that it talks to and their incomplete understanding of the commercial world.
I fundamentally believe that this is the crux of the ethics argument in relation to kids and that every other micro issue on the table should be understood in this light. This is the overarching idea of ethics and children’s marketing.
For starters it begins to show why the most recent spat between the libertarians and the abolitionists – the right to advertise to children – was rather beside the point.
You will remember that they were both obsessing over the age at which children can understand the persuasive intent of commercials and the difference between programmes and ads.
Fighting for the abolitionists were the Swedish capitalising on their presidency of the EU. They called for the abolition of all advertising to children brandishing a, now rather discredited, piece of research that suggested that kids up to 10 were still unable to understand persuasive intent. Ten years old became twelve after the Swedes had added a couple of years for good luck.
In rode the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising for the libertarians. They brandished another piece of research that suggested that from the age of 4 children could clearly make this distinction and forecasting the end of quality children’s programming if the ad revenue was curtailed.
Thankfully for all of us in the industry the Swedes were headed off at the pass, but what a pointless debate.
In part this is because it is nonsense to make a distinction between advertising and children’s programming. Both seem to me to have persuasive intent. In fact I’d suggest that just at the moment the programmes are rather more effective in generating desire than the commercials.
Jake, Fizz, Milo and Bella, not to mention doodles the dog, are one of the fastest selling children’s products from the BBC’s commercial arm and have completely blurred the line between programming and marketing. Are Tweenies programmes much more than ads for Tweenies merchandise?
However, my fundamental problem with the ad ban argument it is that there is not an age when children understand the commercial world they live in. there is not an age in which they comprehend the role that individual elements play from shops to ads to sponsorship to brands. It’s a process of development throughout childhood as kids learn the highs and lows, the truths and falsehoods and the honest brokers and the charlatans of consumerism.
There is not a switch that gets turned on in children’s minds.
At any one time a child will only have a partial understanding of the commercial world whether they are more trusting at the younger end of the age spectrum or more cynical at the older.
Children’s development is by definition developmental. And so must be our approach to creating aware consumers out of them.
Children learn by being guided through new experiences and ideas that are just beyond their current capabilities, in what child psychologists call the zone of proximal development. This is the halo around the child’s level of actual development that they don’t yet really understand.
They do this exploration by experimenting on their own or with the help of an adult or a more competent peer.
Or these days, with the help of the media – whether programming or marketing communications.
Creating aware consumers involves introducing and exploring the elements that make up the commercial world stage by stage in a child’s zone of proximal development. Never going so far that the child can’t grasp the concept that we are entertaining and never falling back and simply working at their level of actual development.
So to flesh out the ethics theory I introduced earlier on I want to divide marketing activity very crudely into two camps. Unethical and ethical.
Marketing communications that talk to children only at their level of actual development are unethical. They are by definition exploitative because, either by accident of design, they capitalise on the lack of full understanding that a child has of the commercial world.
Marketing communications that talk to kids at the edge of their level of development (what we called the zone of proximal development) are ethical (at least at their heart). This is because those communications don’t exploit a child’s naivety but instead contribute to the understanding the child has about the way that we all work.
As a result the answer I would give to those people who say that marketing makes kids grow up faster is yes at its best it does.
eat but presumably doesn’t mind. But do the children at whom the brand is aimed?
So to recap on the argument, I contend that the definition of ethical marketing to kids is marketing that helps create aware consumers rather than exploiting their naivety about the commercial world. But that there is no ‘aware’ switch you can turn on, children’s understanding develops in stages. Stay ethical by always being one step ahead of the child.
Ultimately only you can decide if your marketing activity exploits children or educates them.

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